I was introduced to Chardonnay as a “cheerleader” grape, a variety which will do anything you want. The analogy is dated, especially during the era of “me too.” But the fact remains, Chardonnay will take on a diverse personality depending on where it’s grown and how it’s vinified.
Chardonnay is easily influenced, taking the personality of its climate or its wine cellar. The styles therefore range from very light and crisp to very rich and fruity, although it is almost always dry. It responds well to malolactic fermentation, lees ageing, and oak, but may also be aged in stainless steel for a leaner style. From oaky aromas with baked fruit to steely and mineral, there is a style for every palate.
The ubiquitous Chardonnay is found from the cool limestone soils in Chablis to the valley of Puglia. Here are three of the world’s wine regions most famous for premium Chardonnay.
The warm, sunny climate in Northern California allows Chardonnay’s fruitiness to reach full potential. Stylistically, Napa winemakers are use malolactic fermentation and significant levels . The generous texture from the MLF, which agives the wine its buttery aroma, plays off the enhanced texture and aroma of the new oak. Napa Chardonnay classically represents one of the richest styles of white wines available worldwide. Yet leaner, more focused styles are emerging from “New California” producers in cooler vineyard sites and with less oak.
Aroma: Baked pear & apple, topical fruits, vanilla, coconut, baking spices, butter, popcorn.
Palate: Full body with elevated alcohol and moderate to moderate plus acidity.
Food pairing: The butteriness of California Chardonnay matches cream sauces.Chicken with a butter sauce makes for a mouthwatering Chardonnay pairing.
Technically, Chablis is part of the greater Burgundy wine region in France. Although the wine in the glass is more similar to the base wines of nearby Champagne with equally high-acidity and a mineral driven profile. The marginal climate is prone to frost and hail, which often results in lower yields. In Chablis, Chardonnay receives less sun and heat to produce the ripe fruit aromas found in California wines.
Rather, the wines are crisp and clean with oyster shell and tart lemon notes. Some compare the limestone soils with fossilized seabeds to the saline, oyster shell aromas found in the wines. Chardonnay from Chablis occasionally receives extra texture from extended lees aging. This winemaking process gives the wines a creamy texture, softening the hard angles. Chablis is a sommelier favorite which pairs well with many foods, especially seafood.
Aroma: Tart lemon, limestone, seashell
Palate: Lean and crisp, driven by very high acidity.
Food pairing: The saline quality of the wine complements lighter seafoods and shellfish, such as oysters. Chablis is a good match for salad dressings, as the wine meets the acidity of the vinaigrette. This French wine’s acidity can also balance rich cheeses, adding balance to the dish.
Côtes de Beaune
Chardonnay from Côtes de Beaune represents the most world-renowned expression of the variety. The region claims some of the highest prices for white wine in the world. The Grand Cru vineyards combine the richness of California Chardonnay with the mineral freshness of Chablis. Slightly warmer than Chablis, but cooler and wetter than Napa Valley, Côtes de Beaune wines develop pear and apple aromas. Vanilla and toast aromatics from new French oak barrels are also prominent. Plus, winemakers implement malolactic fermentation. Although perhaps to a lesser degree than the typical California style. Furthermore, Burgundy winemakers developed malolactic fermentation, barrel fermentation, and barrel aging winemaking techniques favored around the world today. Chardonnay from Burgundy is rich mid-palate with bright acidity, which is the backbone of longevity in the region. Wines from the Côtes de Beaune can last decades, taking on complex nutty aromas.
Aroma: Tart yellow and green apple, lemon, vanilla, toast, stony minerality, mushroom, cream, white flowers
Palate: Moderate to full body with elevated acidity and a long finish.
Food pairing: “White Burgundy,” or the whites from Côtes de Beaune, are very food friendly. Truffle and mushroom dishes are a classic pairing for this French Chardonnay. White Burgundy also successfully pairs with dark-fleshed fish and white meat. Creamy soups are an easy pairing as well. -AT